Waiting in the Wings
What, besides a glittering cast, might be Waiting in the Wings? Certainly not the best play Sir Noel Coward ever wrote -- the plot and structure are so creaky you could auction the piece off as an antique on eBay -- but to quibble and cavil over the play's much-discussed flaws is pointless. For while Wings is weak in wit, sluggish in story, and the unfortunate occupant of a low spot in the Coward canon, what Waiting in the Wings does do -- and rather well -- is stoke the fire of an age-old question: Can a great cast save a not-so-great script? The answer, at least as far as this production is concerned, is yes.
Set in The Wings, a quaint British residential home for retired actresses, Coward's attitudes on aging were already antiquated when the play was first written and produced in London back in 1960. Sensing sappy soupiness for what it is, Frith Banbury, the original director, bowed out of that initial production, refusing to cower before Coward's "sentimentalizing of old age." The unhappy task of giving Wings flight then fell to Peggy Webster, who, in addition to moving such theatrical institutions as Dame Sybil Thorndike about the stage, spent much time hoping and groping for dumb luck or sheer inspiration to lift the play from its precarious perch. (That Sir Noel didn't direct the play himself is proof positive of the play's problems.)
Meanwhile, four decades later, and in celebration of the centenary of Coward's birth, Wings is now receiving its Broadway premiere thanks to legendary producer Alexander H. Cohen. Of equal importance to this production is the contribution of playwright Jeremy Sams, credited with having "revisited" the play. Fortunately, it's a smart revisit: The play is at least playable now to a 21st century audience, one quite accustomed to people living healthy, productive lives well into their 90s and beyond. Sams has also carefully preserved the crafty one-liners and trademark Cowardisms that salt and pepper the play. Alas, there isn't much Sams can do with Wings' limp storylines, but that is where the stellar cast, now led by Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, triumphantly fill the stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre with brio and effervescence.
The main plot concerns Lotta Bainbridge (Bacall) and May Davenport (Harris), two famous actresses who, for 30-odd years, have neither spoken to each other nor disclosed to anyone the reason behind their feud. Through a series of circumstances -- mostly unfortunate turns of financial fate -- they now find themselves living amongst the elderly crew at The Wings. May, ever regal, refuses to even speak to Lotta, and all of Lotta's olive branches are quickly rebuffed.
This is because time, as it turns out, hasn't worn down either ladies' spirit a bit. As played by Harris, May is sprightly, proud, almost maternal; she's also cucumber-cool, alienating, judgmental, and possessed of a gift for holding grudges that would make the Mafia coo with envy. Lotta, as played by Bacall, is quite a lot of fun, frequently spinning yarns related to her once-great theatrical career. With that career now ended, Lotta also bears the bitterness and bruises of a feisty has-been.
Still, the ladies' eventual reconciliation is never really in doubt. What is in doubt, however, is why the subplot -- the need to raise funds for a new solarium at The Wings -- drives so much of the action. True, this dramatic device enables Coward to involve the other 16 characters in the play rather well and fully, but you'd think May and Lotta, both being possessed of so much animosity toward each other, would simply have more to say, to argue about, to vent about, than they do. The crux of their dispute -- the man who done them wrong -- is neatly handled in but one too-swift scene. Oh Sir Noel! -- if only fury were all!
Making her first appearance on Broadway since her Tony Award-winning turn in Woman of the Year in 1982, Bacall has been almost universally described as miscast as Lotta. This, too, is balderdash! Just like Harris, who by merely fluttering her eyelids can cause chuckles or chills to waft from Row A onward, Bacall too has the luminous stage presence of the star that she is. Bogie's beau can clip a Coward quip with the iron grip and timing of a master.
But let's return to the question of whether a superior cast can overcome an inferior script. Purists, of course, hate this whole argument -- they maintain that even the best cast can never turn a bad script into good theater -- yet tucked away in Waiting in the Wings is a splendid 18-person cast that shines like a necklace of pearls. Where else on Broadway -- or anywhere these days -- can such gems as Rosemary Murphy, Elizabeth Wilson, Patricia Conolly, Helena Carroll, Bette Henritze, Helen Stenborg and Victoria Boothby be seen together on a stage? Carroll, in particular, is just spectacular as Deirdre, the incomparably florid Irishwoman who stops the show repeatedly with her comic lingual gymnastics.